Terminology

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Notre Dame University welcomes Professor Margaret Somerville via its website.

In two opinion pieces recently published in the ABC’s conservative Religion & Ethics blog,1,2 Margaret Somerville, Professor of Bioethics at Notre Dame University, railed against marriage equality law reform using reasoning that I contend fails not only appropriate standards of ethics argument but indeed her own stated standards. Here’s why.

Railing against careful and reasoned language

In two ABC opinion pieces, Margo (as she refers to herself) railed extensively against the term ‘marriage equality,’ arguing that it ought to be referred to instead as ‘same-sex marriage.’ She volunteers that the real motive for her preferred term is that in her opinion fewer people will support ‘same-sex’ marriage than will support ‘equality’ of marriage.

Margo quite overlooks the fact that some folks deliberatively eschew gender identity or are asexual, yet may wish to honour a loving, life-long relationship through marriage. There’s also the issue of a change of gender identity within marriage, not just when entering into marriage.

The goal of Australian marriage law reform is a single, revised Act which articulates a uniform, equal set of provisions for marriage regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity: not a separate Act which permits a different version of marriage only for same-sex-attracted people.

Therefore, ‘marriage equality’ is indeed an appropriate expression for revised legislation while ‘same-sex marriage’ is less so.

“But what about the children!?”

Margo also railed extensively against marriage equality because, she claims, marriage is primarily about the rights of children, not the married couple.

However, the Marriage Act3 makes no assumptions about the marriage being for the purpose of producing children. Indeed, this would be foolish as it would preclude infertile couples from marrying. Here’s the entire definition of marriage under the Act:

“Marriage means the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life.” — Marriage Act 1961 (as amended)

Sure, the Act does have a couple of things to say about children, but in relation to the status of a legally adopted child, and child ‘legitimacy’ (which confers rights to use the family name and inherit titles, for example).

While the Act provides largesse for religious marriage celebrants to include any wording they deem appropriate (and which might cover the subject of procreation) in a marriage service, the minimum required civil celebrant wording is:

“I call upon the persons here present to witness that I, (first and last name), take thee, (first and last name), to be my lawful wedded wife/husband.” — Marriage Act 1961, S45(2) [or words like it]

No mention of children there, either. Section 1A.3 of the Marriage Regulations4 requires a marriage celebrant (religious and civil alike) to recognise “the importance of strong and respectful family relationships.” Notice again the absence of the presumption of producing children.

No necessary connection between children and marriage

Separate State and Territory Acts provide for the recognition of de facto relationships, over which the Commonwealth has no special jurisdiction. While recognised by the state these relationships are legally distinct from marriage.

In terms of unions that Australians willingly establish, Australian Bureau of Statistics data shows that:5

  • Around three quarters of marriages are now conducted by a civil celebrant rather than a religious one; and
  • Around one third of all Australian births are now to non-married partners.

 
It’s obvious that many marriages are now non-religious, that they can be childless, and, conversely, that many children are born in the absence of marriage. There is no necessary relationship in either direction between marriage and children that underpins Margo’s contentions.

No necessary link to assisted reproduction, either

Margo then goes on to rail against assisted human reproduction (surrogacy, gamete donation and IVF), complaining that non-hetero married couples would have to ask for such help to produce children. But, like the child argument itself, this is not unique in any way to marriage. De facto couples and even single women can ask for reproductive assistance, as can infertile hetero couples within marriage. As with children, assisted reproduction and marriage are not uniquely entwined as Margo wrongly argues: they are separate in law and practice even if the link is critical to some couples.

Why the confected 'necessity'?

So why then, does Margo go to such lengths to instil ‘children’ as central to the purpose of marriage? A potential explanation is that her expressed views, while reflecting neither law nor practice, are consistent with her Catholic faith. Catholic tradition is very deeply steeped in the notion that marriage is primarily for the purpose of procreation.

In her 2015 Bird on an Ethics Wire book, Margo invokes the 'would-if-they-could' defence for opposite-sex couples who want to marry but are intfertile (while remaining mute about married couples who expressly don't want children). She fails to articulate any sound reason as to why this is a different 'would-if-they-could' argument from same-gendered or non-gendered partners, except to argue, offensively, that same-sex partners are socially infertile for “lack of an opposite-sex partner.” In her ABC opinion pieces she simply says the hetero version is “symbolic.” Curiously for an ethicist, she fails to reflect on who gets to decide which are valid symbols and whether any symbolism ought to be mandatory for everyone.

Margo asserts that marriage between opposite-sex partners is ‘traditional.’ I say, good on her for personally sticking to a tradition she thinks important: but ‘tradition’ is a poor foundation for continuing to impose historical views on Australians who are not Catholic nor any longer support those views… which is the great majority of us.

The bogeyman argument

Margo then makes vague claims that marriage equality ‘takes away children’s rights’ and causes ‘harms.’ The ‘harm’ she does articulate is the “right to know one’s biological parents.” She speaks of anonymous gamete donation, but fails to note that it occurs equally both inside and outside of — and therefore isn’t conditioned by nor conditions — marriage. Therefore, any “right to know one’s biological parents” is, like children themselves and assisted reproduction in general, entirely independent of the marital status of the parents and is of no special force or relevance in marriage equality debates.

The not-as-good-as-heteros argument

Margo then promotes the importance of the “complementarity in parenting between a mother and father,” with the innuendo that same-sex parents are at least a much lesser standard for raising children, if not unsuitable altogether. Let’s examine this hoary old chestnut, particularly in relation to ‘expert’ evidence Margo proffered in a USA Court case.

Court assessment of Margo’s ‘evidence’

Historically, Iowa’s statute §595.2 restricted marriage to between only a man and a woman. A series of Iowa Court cases overturned that limitation in 2006–9. Margo and two of her colleagues from McGill University’s School of Religious Studies were advanced to the court as ‘expert witnesses’ against the reform, in relation to the ‘perils’ of marriage equality including the ‘harms’ to children. Here’s what the Iowa District Court concluded:6

“Though they may have expertise in certain areas, such expertise is insufficient to qualify Ms Somerville [and her two colleagues from the School of Religious Studies] to answer the particular questions that they are asked. Though these experts desire to make statements regarding gender, results of same-sex marriage on children and the universal definition of marriage, they do not appear to possess expertise in relevant fields such as sociology, child development, psychology or psychiatry. Ms Somerville specifically eschews empirical research and methods of logical reasoning in favour of ‘moral intuition.’ She has no training in empirical research and admits having no knowledge of existing social science research relevant to this case. She concedes that her views do not reflect the mainstream views of other ethicists.”

and

“The views espoused by these individuals appear to be largely personal and not based on observation supported by scientific methodology or based on empirical research in any sense.”

and

“…the Court concludes that these individuals are not qualified to testify as experts regarding the issues in this matter.”

The Court then expressly identified substantive harms that accrue to non-heterosexual partners through denial of marriage.

The case then went to Iowa’s Supreme Court. In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court upheld the District Court’s determination, noting that:7

“The research appears to strongly support the conclusion that same-sex couples foster the same wholesome environment as opposite-sex couples and suggests that the traditional notion that children need a mother and a father to be raised into healthy, well-adjusted adults is based more on stereotype than anything else.”

and

“Many leading organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, the National Association of Social Workers, and the Child Welfare League of America, weighed the available research and supported the conclusion that gay and lesbian parents are as effective as heterosexual parents in raising children.”

and

“For example, the official policy of the American Psychological Association declares, ‘There is no scientific evidence that parenting effectiveness is related to parental sexual orientation: Lesbian and gay parents are as likely as heterosexual parents to provide supportive and healthy environments for children.’”

So much for Margo’s ‘authority’ on the subject of marriage equality.

Those interested in a thorough rebuttal of Margo’s arguments against marriage equality might be interested to read papers by Scoff F. Woodcock of the University of Victoria (BC), an Associate Professor specialising in normative and applied ethics,8 and Timothy F. Murphy of the University of Illinois, Professor of Philosophy in the Biomedical Sciences specialising in professional ethics, assisted reproductive technologies, medicine and sexuality.9 Both these Professors hold earned doctorates in philosophy; whereas Margo, according to her own biography, holds earned academic qualifications in pharmacy and law, but none in philosophy or ethics.

The importance of relevant and persuasive facts

In an important recognition, a highly-published ethicist once wrote that:

“We sometimes overlook the importance of having good facts in dealing with ethical issues. This is a serious mistake. Good facts (including, if necessary, research to establish them) are essential to good ethics, which, in turn, is essential to good law.” and “Good ethical and legal ‘facts’ start with primary sources that are up to date and accurate.” [Italics are original]

That ethicist was… Margo Somerville.10 My view is that Margo has failed to live up to her own standards by getting some fundamental facts expressly wrong and misrepresenting others with innuendo whilst failing to mention readily-available and widely-agreed facts that contradict her thesis.

Also surprising is that she continues to opine against marriage equality law reform in Australia using the same opinions that were publicly and expressly rejected by a USA court; the same opinions that have been insightfully dissembled and rebutted by appropriately-qualified academics via analyses published in professional peer-reviewed journals.

Conclusion

An Iowa Court has determined that Margo Somerville’s views on marriage equality are largely personal and eschew empirical research and methods of logical reasoning in favour of ‘moral intuition.’ (More on ‘moral intuition’ in another blog.) Further, they are at odds with readily available research evidence. Her opinions then are not founded on scholarly verification and fail to reflect the highest standards of thought and deduction.

I firmly believe that Margo is entitled to her opinions. However, it is my view that appeals for her marriage equality opinions to be acclaimed on the basis of the authority bias — as “Professor of Ethics at Notre Dame University” and “a preeminent public intellectual in Bioethics” — are unjustifiable.

And if the ABC chooses to publish any more of Margo’s nonsense about ‘the perils of marriage equality to children,’ I might just ask for a refund of my twelve cents a day.*

-----

Up next: Who is Margo Somerville? Up later: Why is she so comprehensively wrong on assisted dying law reform?

* The ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) is the nation’s public broadcaster and advertises that it provides its services for a mere twelve cents a day from each of the country’ residents.

 

Footnote: yet another fundamental (and simple) fact wrong

You’d think that being an accomplished Commonwealth legal scholar that Margo would understand the fundamental structure of Commonwealth legislatures.

But in her ABC missives against marriage equality, she concluded by remarking that same-sex couples often lament the lack of marriage equality “…such as we saw in the anguish Senator Tim Wilson manifested in his maiden speech in the Senate.” Here’s a photo of Tim Wilson delivering that speech:

Tim Wilson delivers his maiden speech in ParliamentTim Wilson delivers his maiden speech in Parliament. Video still: ABC News

In Commonwealth countries, the upper house (Australia, federal: Senate) is fitted out in red (the colour of royalty and cardinals), while the lower house (Australia, federal: House of Representatives) is green (the colour of ‘common’ fields).

Immediately evident from glancing at his maiden speech for a mere millisecond is that Mr Wilson is not a Senator: all the livery is green. He is MHR for the Victorian Division of Goldstein, not a Senator for the State of Victoria.

Canadian Parliament housesThe Canadian federal Parliament’s green House of Commons and red Senate (Margo has recently returned to Australia from decades in Canada) Photo: Mightydrake

It’s bewildering then that when Margo saw Mr Wilson’s maiden speech she utterly failed to establish which house he was in, nor took the trouble to examine or test her assumptions before publishing her ‘expert’ opinion about it online.

 

References

  1. Somerville, M 2016, 'Marriage equality' or 'same-sex marriage'? Why words matter, ABC Religion & Ethics, viewed 28 Oct 2016, http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2016/10/14/4556874.htm.
  2. Somerville, M 2016, Same-sex marriage: It's about children's rights, not sexual orientation, ABC Religion & Ethics, viewed 28 Oct 2016, http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2016/10/07/4552500.htm.
  3. 1961, Marriage Act (Cth), Australia, pp. 120.
  4. 1963, Marriage Regulations 1963 (Cth), Australia, pp. 85.
  5. Australian Bureau of Statistics 2015, 3310.0 - Marriages and Divorces, Australia, 2014, viewed 28 Oct 2016, http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Latestproducts/3310.0Main%20Features112014?opendocument&tabname=Summary&prodno=3310.0&issue=2014&num=&view=.
  6. Iowa District Court for Polk County 2007, Katherine Varnum et al. v. Timothy J. Brien, CV5965, pp. 63.
  7. Supreme Court of Iowa 2009, Katherine Varnum et al. v. Timothy J. Brien (Polk County), SCC No. 07-1499, Des Moines, pp. 69.
  8. Woodcock, S 2009, 'Five reasons why Margaret Somerville is wrong about same-sex marriage and the rights of children', Dialogue-Canadian Philosophical Review, 48(4), pp. 867-887.
  9. Murphy, TF 2011, 'Same-sex marriage: Not a threat to marriage or children', Journal of Social Philosophy, 42(3), pp. 288-304.
  10. Somerville, MA 2014, Death talk: The case against euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide (2nd Ed.), 2nd Ed. edn, McGill-Queen's University Press, Montreal.

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